September Restart: Learn, Unlearn, and Relearn

Swim in the intellectual deep end, urges Cathy N. Davidson, John Hope Franklin Humanities Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University. In today’s new world, she points to Alvin Toffler’s definition of literacy, “to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

“One could argue,” writes Davidson in Duke Magazine, “that data mastery (in any field), the ability to absorb and evaluate information, and the skill to use existing paradigms to solve problems predict good grades but do not necessarily prepare students to respond effectively to the unexpected twists and turns that, inevitably, like ahead.”

Unlearning and relearning takes place when students study abroad, when they confront an emergency like a serious illness or the loss of a job or life savings. But how to simulate this in a classroom? She has a radical curriculum proposal. Essentially it requires students to take advanced courses without prerequisites, to spend time “in the intellectual deep end with our fellow students there helping us to learn to swim.”

(For more of Davidson’s radical ideas, she blogs at pronounced haystack, as in needle in. For her opponents, those who espouse a standard curriculum, check out this education blog.)

Ambitious students figure out creative ways to swim in the deep end without floaties. I remember spending hours, poring over the catalog, figuring out ways to take higher level courses without prerequisites. My favorite alternative strategy, which I pass on to any college student who will listen, is to take the lower level courses but with the “star” professors. It works to wait a year for that non-major course usually taken by freshmen and sophomores. You will be more likely to get into that in-demand section as a junior.

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